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The Undertold Story of Mary Ellen Pleasant’s Haitian Heritage

By Bianca Silva

Few women captivated the 1800’s with great ambition and cleverness like Mary Ellen Pleasant. According to various sources, she was born a slave on a plantation in Georgia to a Vodou priestess from the Caribbean and the youngest son of Virginia governor James Pleasant. As a little girl, Mary Ellen was sent to work as an indentured servant in Nantucket.

Being a light-skinned black woman, she would often pass as white to avoid being captured and put back into slavery. In 1852, she moved to San Francisco and became one of the wealthiest people in California as she continued to pass as a white woman.

During her lifetime, she amassed a multi-million dollar fortune from the $45,000 in gold she invested from the estate of her first husband, James Smith. Smith was a wealthy plantation owner who also passed off as white. As a real estate innovator, she built boarding houses for high society men and managed to infiltrate the inner circles of prominent people and later used the knowledge to develop more businesses.

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Bianca Silva
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Bianca Silva

Bianca Silva is a journalist and photographer living in New York City. She has written for TIME, Amsterdam News, TODAY.com, Harlem Focus and The WEEK.
Bianca Silva
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Feb. 03, 2019